The Avoid-Avoid Dance in Relationships: Closing the Distance
Embracing a peaceful coexistence is the heart of a relationship where partners are inclined to navigate challenging or distressing situations through avoidance, withdrawing from each other, physically and/or emotionally.
Meet Olivia and Owen, a same-sex couple of mixed cultural backgrounds in their thirties. Olivia works as a freelance artist, while Owen is a writer known for her thought-provoking essays. The couple decided to attend Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy to try to improve their fading relationship.
The Avoid-Avoid Pattern: Navigating Disconnection
The heart of emotionally distant relationships lies in the avoid-avoid dance, a dysfunctional pattern where partners evade addressing their feelings or conflicts head-on, fearing that doing so might trigger rejection or conflict .
For example, Olivia and Owen found themselves ensnared in this intricate yet painful avoidance dance, but their efforts to avoid tension inadvertently drove a wedge between them . Their avoidance of emotional risks deepened their disconnect, with each partner yearning for closeness but apprehensive about being vulnerable.
As their therapist engaged with them, a palpable, uncomfortable silence lingered, casting an awkward shadow over the room.
Therapist: Olivia, can you share how you felt when Owen didn't join you at the event last week?
Olivia: (glancing at Owen) Well, it's just that I thought we could have gone together, but it's not a big deal.
Owen: Yeah, I had work to finish up, so I thought it would be better if Olivia went alone.
Therapist: Olivia, how does that explanation make you feel?
Olivia: (forces a smile) I understand, work is important. It's fine, really.
Therapist: Owen, do you sense anything in Olivia's response that you'd like to explore further?
Owen: (shifts uncomfortably) I mean, it sounds like she's okay with it, so I guess we're good.
Unveiling the Roots of Avoidance: Navigating Attachment Strategies
The intricacies of the avoid-avoid dance trace their origins to the attachment strategies ingrained in each partner's psyche. Attachment theory posits that these strategies are developed in response to early life experiences, shaping how individuals form and maintain relationships throughout their lives . For Olivia and Owen, their avoidant behaviors were, ironically, their best attempts to protect both each other and their relationship, albeit in a distancing manner.
Olivia's Protective Shield of Avoidance
Olivia's approach to avoidance as an attachment strategy can be traced back to the emotional terrain of her childhood. As a young girl, she bore witness to her parents' canyon sized disconnection, an experience that etched a deep-seated fear of conflict and its purported aftermath—permanent emotional detachment. Unbeknownst to her parents, their pattern of avoiding confrontation had left Olivia with the impression that expressing her emotions could shatter the delicate bonds of love.
In her pursuit of harmony and protection as an adult, Olivia chose to silence her feelings and aspirations. Her intention was to create a refuge, a space where her emotional restraint would shield her partner from any potential pain or discomfort. Her avoidance thus emerged as an unspoken gesture of preserving her relationship, even at the expense of her own emotional fulfillment.
Owen's intricate dance of emotional adaptation is a testament to the profound impact of her formative years on her attachment strategy. Delving into Owen's past reveals a landscape marked by nuanced emotional dynamics, which intricately wove together to shape her approach to relationships and vulnerability.
During her formative years, Owen was exposed to a family environment that emphasized the importance of emotional restraint and detachment. Growing up, she witnessed her parents maintain an outward appearance of calm and harmony, all while suppressing their authentic emotions. Conversations that hinted at emotional depth were rare, if not entirely absent. This upbringing subtly communicated the message that revealing one's true feelings could disrupt the balance of the household.
As Owen ventured into the realm of intimate relationships, this emotional landscape became the canvas upon which she painted her attachment strategy. Her interactions with Olivia, while blossoming with love and companionship, bore the imprint of her past. When Owen voiced her concerns or emotions, she was met with Olivia's withdrawal—a reaction that reinforced Owen’s attachment fears that expressing her feelings could rupture their fragile connection. Her instinctual response was to mask her feelings and prioritize harmony over vulnerability, all in a bid to ensure that her connection with Olivia remained unmarred. As the years went by, Owen's subconscious mind began equating emotional honesty with disconnection and rejection.
To safeguard the remnants of their bond, Owen found solace in distraction. Her commitment to literary pursuits and engagement in external activities was not just a means of evading the discomfort of their emotional distance, but an effort to protect Olivia from the perceived harm that her emotional revelations might cause. The busyness was her way of contributing to the relationship in a manner that seemed unobtrusive, even though it was borne from an underlying fear of making things worse.
Understanding the roots of their avoidant behaviors allows Olivia and Owen to see these strategies not as failures or personal flaws, but as coping mechanisms formed in response to past experiences. Their avoid-avoid dance, however counterproductive, was their best attempt to protect each other from pain and ensure the longevity of their connection. It was an unconscious effort to shield their partner and the relationship from the perceived threat of vulnerability.
Through the lens of attachment theory, it becomes apparent that Olivia's and Owen's actions stem from love, albeit veiled in the guise of avoidance. Acknowledging that their attachment strategies have been fueled by a desire to preserve the relationship lays the groundwork for transformative growth. Armed with this understanding, they embark on a journey to unravel the layers of their dance, guided by Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, and discover healthier ways of fostering closeness.
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy provides a safe haven for partners like Olivia and Owen to recognize their avoidant patterns and take the necessary emotional risks to reestablish a genuine connection. The therapist's guidance helps them see the counterproductive nature of their avoidance strategies and empowers them to embrace vulnerability as a means of rekindling their relationship's flame .
Therapist: Olivia, can you tell Owen how you truly felt when she decided to attend the event alone?
Olivia: (takes a deep breath) It actually hurt, Owen. I wanted us to be there together, and when you chose work over us, I felt a sense of distance that's been growing.
Therapist: Owen, what's coming up for you as you hear this?
Owen: (softly) I didn't realize it hurt you that much, Liv. I thought I was doing the right thing by prioritizing work, but I can see now how it made you feel. That’s not what I want for you or us.
Owen: (with sincerity) Olivia, I want you to know that I never intended to make you feel like you're second to my work. I was trying to protect our relationship, thinking that if I handled things on my own, it would spare us from any potential stress. I realize now that my way of protecting us has been driving us apart.
Olivia: (softly) Owen, hearing you say that brings a new perspective to everything. I understand that you were trying to shield us from potential conflict, just like how I've been avoiding my feelings to prevent any disconnection. It's both reassuring and heartening to know that our actions were rooted in a desire to protect what we have. Even though it's been causing distance,
this moment of honesty and vulnerability makes me feel closer to you than we've been in a long time.
Therapist: (affirming) Olivia, Owen's admission is a testament to the depth of care and commitment you both share. It's true, our instinct to protect our relationships can sometimes lead us down paths we didn't intend. However, the key lies in recognizing these patterns and, like you're doing right now, fostering open dialogue and understanding. This is the foundation upon which you can rebuild your connection and create a space where both of you feel seen, heard, and cherished.
Breaking free from the avoid-avoid dance requires acknowledging and challenging avoidance strategies while embracing emotional risks. To strengthen your relationship, consider the following actionable steps:
1. Acknowledge Your Relationship Patterns: Recognize when avoidance is creeping into your interactions and how it's impacting your connection. Explore how this avoidance is protecting you and/or the relationship from conflict.
2. Open Up About Fears: Share your attachment fears and past experiences that contribute to your avoidance.
3. Embrace Vulnerability: Start sharing your feelings, desires, and concerns honestly, even when it feels uncomfortable.
4. Active Listening: Pay attention to your partner's words and emotions, showing genuine interest in their perspective.
5. Validate Each Other: Validate your partner's emotions and experiences, even if they differ from yours.
6. Seek Professional Help: Consider couples therapy to navigate these patterns and foster a healthier dynamic.
7. Practice Patience: Transformation takes time; be patient with yourself and your partner as you work to break the cycle.
8. Celebrate Progress: Celebrate each step you take towards vulnerability and emotional connection, even if it's small.
The journey to dismantling the avoid-avoid dance might not be easy, but the reward of a stronger, more intimate relationship is undoubtedly worth the effort. By learning to lean into discomfort and vulnerability, couples like Olivia and Owen can rewrite their dance of avoidance into a dance of closeness, rediscovering the joy of emotional connection.
What if I don’t know how I feel?
In the intricate dance of relationships, some partners find themselves struggling with emotional avoidance due to a lack of understanding about their emotional world growing up. If no one made an effort to connect and explore your emotional world, it only makes sense that you may find that territory foreign. For those who feel adrift in this sea of detachment, there is hope in acknowledging their own emotional landscape and taking steps to share feelings and connect on a deeper level.
Recognizing the Uncharted Emotional Territory
In some relationships, emotional avoidance is not a conscious strategy but a result of partners being disconnected from their own feelings. These individuals might have grown up in environments where emotions were rarely discussed or acknowledged, leaving them ill-equipped to navigate the complexities of their own emotional world. Consequently, they might find it challenging to identify their feelings, let alone share them with their partner.
The Path to Emotional Awareness
The journey toward understanding and connection begins with self-awareness. For partners who are unsure about their emotional landscape, it's essential to engage in introspection and bodily sensations. Set aside time for self-reflection, and explore your feelings in your body without judgment. By exploring sensations in your body, you can begin to connect with what the tension in your chest may be about. Journaling or talking to a trusted friend or therapist can be valuable tools in this process. By becoming more attuned to your emotions, you lay the foundation for a more meaningful connection with your partner.
Therapist's Insight: EFT's Role in the Journey of Emotional Attunement
In Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, partners who struggle with emotional avoidance are gently guided to explore their feelings and communicate them in a safe and supportive environment. The therapist employs techniques that help partners identify and express their emotions, allowing them to bridge the gap between avoidance and connection. Through this process, partners learn to embrace vulnerability, ultimately enriching their relationship.
In the journey from emotional avoidance to understanding and connection, partners who were once unsure about their emotional world can find solace and strength in each other. By delving into their feelings and sharing them with authenticity, they discover the joy of deeper emotional intimacy and the transformative power of true connection.
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 Johnson, S. (2008). Hold me tight: Seven conversations for a lifetime of love. Little, Brown Spark.
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 McKinnon, J. M., & Greenberg, L. S. (2017). Vulnerable Emotional Expression In Emotion Focused Couples Therapy: Relating Interactional Processes To Outcome. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 43(2), 198–212. https://doi.org/10.1111/jmft.12229
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